Chinese spending on soccer stars went gangbusters in 2016

What a year.
What a year.
Image: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has received a generous paycheck from a Chinese soccer team, his agent Jorge Mendes told Sky Sport recently. The unidentified Chinese buyer had offered the newly crowned four-time golden ball winner an annual salary of over €100 million ($105 million), Mendes claimed—double Ronaldo’s current yearly earnings in salary and bonuses.

But the Portuguese star, who won championship titles with both his national team and Real Madrid this year, has turned down the offer. “Money is not everything, the Spanish club is his life,” said Mendes.

The failed bid—which would have brought Real Madrid a record-breaking €300 million transfer fee—is yet another benchmark in China’s spending spree on soccer stars this year. Recently, Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Oscar and Boca Juniors’s Argentina striker Carlos Tevez each signed to join rival Shanghai teams. In Tevez’s case, Shanghai Shenghua lured him on board with a reported £615,000 weekly salary (which equals about one pound per second), making the 32-year-old the highest paid soccer player the world.

In 2016 Chinese Super League teams completed four out of the 10 most expensive player transfers, according to Transmarkt. That places the league on par with legendary European clubs such as Manchester United and Italy’s Juventus. (Oscar’s move to Shanghai SIPG will complete in January, when the Premier League’s transfer window opens.)

Chinese soccer teams’ spending on transfers exploded after Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese club to win the championship of Asia’s top soccer tournament in 2013. That victory—secured with the help of Argentinian midfielder Darío Conca, and Brazilian striker Elkeson—signaled that paying fat checks for foreign talent could indeed bring big wins.

In 2015, the Chinese Super League spent more than €400 million on transfers. An overwhelming majority of that money went towards poaching overseas players.

Money is likely only reason star players are leaving first-class European leagues for Chinese counterparts. Many athletes in their prime (see Oscar and Alex Teixeira) will face less daunting competition on Chinese fields than they would at home. That could cause their skills to atrophy, making an eventual return quite difficult.

Lurking behind the gold rush is Chinese president Xi Jinping, who has vowed to turn China into a soccer superpower within decades. His political push behind Chinese mega bids has already raised concerns among European club owners and managers. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger said of the Chinese spending in February, “I don’t know how deep the desire in China is, but if there’s a very strong political desire, we should worry.” When news of Oscar’s transfer to China broke, the 67-year-old Frenchman called his expensive move “a distortion.”

To the dismay of Chinese fans, China’s national team still lingers at the bottom of its qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup—even after a hastily made decision in October to hire World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi to rescue it.

Tom Tsui contributed reporting to this article.